Curiosity fuelled by facts

22nd September 1995 at 01:00
David Wray applauds two new series which appeal to a child's unquenchable urge to find things out.

Information books for young children usually adopt one of two approaches. Either they are aimed at a child's unquenchable curiosity and urge to find things out or, like the series reviewed here, they are designed as teaching aids to be used collaboratively by teachers or parents and children.

A first look at these books reveals how much progress has been made in design and production. The Dorling Kindersley revolution has ensured that all publishers now make great efforts to present information in visually attractive ways. Both of these series use high quality photographs to engage the children's interest, but what about the text?

Of the two series, See For Yourself is the more successful in this respect. It attempts to stimulate children to carry out simple scientific investigations into aspects of the world around them such as the weather. The books also provide some fairly detailed information. A real strength is that children are not talked down to but given sufficient detail to fire their interest. In Insects, for example, they are told that: "The butterfly sucks up the nectar through a long, thin tube, called a proboscis". Another book might simply have stated: "Butterflies eat from the flowers", depriving children of the chance to get excited by the technical language and to examine the accompanying picture closely to find the butterfly's proboscis. This approach is characteristic of the series as a whole, introducing words such as abdomen, antennae, thorax (Insects), stamens and stigmas (Flowers) in a natural way, with fully supportive contexts and pictures. Children will learn a great deal from these books as a result.

The series achieves its teaching aims in several ways. The last two pages in each volume include a simple index and a list of "more things to do", activities which will further children's learning about the book's subject. These are generally interesting and useful, although many children will need a good deal of help from teachers or parents. The final page of each book gives "Notes for parents and teachers" with more technical details about the topic.

The Buzzwords series aims to introduce children to the conceptual language of science and maths. Is it heavy? features words connected with measurement such as tall, short, wide etc. The design of each book is simple, with a key word featured on each page, together with a picture and accompanying sentence or two to illustrate the word's use.

The books, therefore, mainly provide contexts for discussion between adults and children. While there is certainly a need for such books, it must be possible to produce a more engaging text. These books consist mainly of simple statements describing the relevant features of the photographs. They consequently have rather a flat feel. There are few questions, so the opportunity to encourage children to interact with the text is largely lost. It seems unlikely that children will want to read these books by themselves, which seems rather a shame for such visually attractive material.

Each book in this series also concludes with an index and suggestions for things to do. The notes for adults are rather inadequate, concentrating on background in-formation, much of which will be familiar. The suggestions for children are better conceived and, with sufficient adult support, will provide some useful learning experiences.

Of the two series, I would strongly recommend See For Yourself for key stage 1 classrooms. They meet a need and take children forward in their learning. Some teachers may also find the Buzzwords books useful, but I suspect that their main use will be in the home, where they will provide good discussion points for parents and children.

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